Unknown Antecessor Location.
Ubik screwed up his face and bit down on the left side of his jaw. It helped with the pain in his head on that side. The images blasted into his mind had been like bathing his brain in acid. It took a little getting used to.
“What are you doing?” said Fig.
“Stretching my face,” said Ubik.
“Okay. Good. I thought you were thinking of ramming your head through the shield.”
Ubik was a little thrown by the assumption. Why would he do something that stupid? The shield was the only thing keeping them alive — if he broke through it, the high gravity would kill him instantly. Then again, maybe…
“Stop,” shouted Fig, a little overexcited by the stress of the situation. “Don’t start considering it now.”
He was observant though.
“I’m not,” said Ubik. “I was just thinking about what our Ant friend told you.”
The droid was frozen in place. It wasn’t moving and it wasn’t interacting with Fig anymore. Ubik’s head was covered by the bubble helmet. He activated the colour filter, one of the non-essential protocols he’d managed to gain control of. The red shield changed to a more visually accessible pink that allowed him to see the droid more clearly.
The white streaks running along its tendrils were an unmistakable silver.
“That silver stuff, I think it’s undergone gravitational phase transition.”
“It changes structure based on the gravity it’s in?”
“Hey, you catch on quick considering I just made that term up,” said Ubik. “That droid is resistant to gravity, but it can create a localised field.”
“It can turn it back into a liquid, and then use it? But if it can do that, why not take over this place?”
“Probably never got round to finishing it,” said Ubik. “Everyone thinks of the Antecessors as all-knowing, all-powerful, the final product of some advanced civilisation, but they were probably just like us. Try stuff out, see if it works, sometimes you get results and sometimes it stops halfway through.”
They both looked at the droid. It flickered. The red shield flickered a fraction of a second later. The two were clearly connected.
“It tried to increase the gravity, communicate and shield us at the same time,” said Fig. “Maybe it was too much.”
“I don’t think it turned on the gravity,” said Ubik. “The message it sent you was rushed and on a clock. It knew it had only a limited time.”
“You saw that in the message?”
“Sure,” said Ubik. “I think there are a lot of answers in there that we just have to find inside all the other stuff. Interesting language.”
“You really understood it?” said Fig.
“More or less. Some.”
Ubik had always been good at picking up languages. Not spoken ones — they tended to follow no logic and break half the rules they set for themselves. It was a good thing most people spoke a standardised form so everyone ignored the same obvious mistakes without making a fuss about it.
But computer languages had always made sense to him. They followed very strict rules and followed extremely narrow definitions. Once you had firm laws in place, it was much easier to bend them into doing things they weren’t intended for.
The Antecessor language was very strict. The possibilities were enormous.
“It’s more dense than anything I’ve seen before,” said Ubik, “but I sort of got the gist.”
“Dense? It felt like each symbol was an entire book.”
That was a good way to put it. The Antecessors had developed a lexicon that condensed meaning into a very limited space. One symbol could represent a lifetime of thought, with every nuance applied. What the droid had shot into Fig’s brain felt like a watered-down version, but if it had used the unabridged version… it would have been more like a weapon going off.
“That’s right,” said Ubik. “It’s like a concentrated pill they can give you that expands once it hits your frontal lobe. Or your cortex. Maybe it’s your medulla oblongata. I’m not a biologist. Just add water.”
“But you understood it? All of it? You know what it was trying to tell me about the origin of its people?”
“Sure. Not really very hard to follow, was it? Guy came along and opened a massive rupture in the fabric of space and emptied out all his garbage.” Ubik shrugged. “Probably planned to sort it out later. You know how that goes. But then all his assistants turned on him and ran off. Staffing problems, very common.”
“I thought…” Figaro hesitated. “I thought it was kind of beautiful. The white hole…”
“White hole, black hole, they’re both the same, really,” said Ubik. “One invades and swamps everything, the other steals and leaves nothing behind. I suppose they’re both very efficient at what they do. That’s sort of beautiful, if you’re into elegant design.”
Figaro looked confused. The poor kid still thought in terms of light and dark, good and bad. As though there was a difference.
“Look, you’re smart, you see the big picture — that’s good. After we get out of here and rescue your dad, save the quadrant from annihilation, etcetera, etcetera, I’ll take you on as a student, if you like.”
“You’ll be my master?”
“More like tutor. I charge by the hour. Don’t get me wrong, I think you’re very talented, but you don’t have the sort of life experience a person needs to get by in high-pressure environments. I mean real ones, not in a let’s-pretend machine. This engine, this whole place, very gravity-based.”
“You think it’s a gravity drive?” said Fig. He really was very quick on the uptake.
“Probably more like an anti-gravity drive.”
“There’s no such thing,” said Fig.
“Anti-grav? Sure there is. Just because every mathematician’s proved its impossible, so what?”
“But none of their other ships use that form of propulsion,” said Fig.
“Those ships probably didn’t need to,” said Ubik.
“Why would this one need to?”
“No idea. But when we find out, ooh boy. We’ll be going places. Might even take a trip into the cool arm of the galaxy. Not much to do out here in the backend of beyond.”
“This backend is my home,” said Fig.
“If you’re going to be the most powerful person in the galaxy one day, you’ll have to go to the centre. Where the real power is.”
“I don’t think I’m destined to be the most powerful person in the galaxy,” said Fig. “Actually, I think that might turn out to be you.”
“Oh, ‘cos of the Null Void thing, huh? Don’t you think if that meant anything, Head would have mentioned it? Or that thing.” He pointed at the droid. “They’re quite perceptive on the whole powerful entity proximity alert thing. Figaro Ollo, you must come with us… wait a minute, who’s that omnipotent dreamboat behind you. Oh, I can’t take my eyes off of him. Change of plans, let’s get this one to go. Didn’t happen, did it? No alarms go off when I’m around. But you… I think the jury’s in on that one.”
Fig paused to consider. That was good. At least he had the good sense to review his own thoughts when someone pointed out the flaws in his logic. That was quite a rare ability.
“That silver liquid,” said Fig. “How can you get it from in here? What do you plan doing with it?”
“Don’t worry about that, I’ve got the whole thing sorted. Just be calm. Look at PT.” PT was floating next to Ubik. “Serene as you like.”
“He’s unconscious,” said Fig.
“I know. Can’t get more relaxed than that. Look, the droid is using the silver stuff to operate these shields. If we can get it to turn them off—”
“We’ll die,” said Fig.
“Wait, let me finish. If we can get it to turn off the shields after returning the gravity to normal levels…”
“How? We can’t interact with the droid.”
“You just did.”
Figaro frowned. “Yes. But it instigated the contact.”
“Ah, ah. Don’t think so limited. If it can, so can you. You can do whatever you set your mind to, Fig.”
“Is this an example of what you’ll be teaching me,” said Fig.
“And then some. The language it used, it’s more than just descriptive or conceptual. It creates its meaning inside your mind. It bypasses the whole need to process.”
“I felt like I had to process a lot,” said Fig.
“Ah, well, that’s where you went wrong. You’ve got to let it flow. Be one with the alien gibberish.”
Fig didn’t look overly convinced. “And you’re one with the Antecessors now, are you?”
“Maybe not one. Maybe a three or four. Close, though. All we’ve got to do is show it the correct sequence of symbols and it’ll trigger it to follow the commands.”
“It’ll just do what you tell it?”
“It’s all in the syntax,” said Ubik.
“How do we do that while it’s buffering?”
“It isn’t buffering,” said PT, sounding groggy.
“Oh, decided to wake up, did you?” said Ubik. “Nice of you to join us.”
“I feel like I’m going to throw up,” said PT.
“Really? Could you do it in your helmet?”
“No,” said PT, becoming more animated. “You threw my helmet into the big hole over there. What happened to it, by the way. Is it still looping?”
“It hasn’t passed by for a while,” said Fig.
PT made a retching sound.
“Aren’t you the gravity maestro? No grav is a problem for the boy born in space?”
“It’s the fluctuations. Can’t you feel it?”
“No,” said Ubik. “It’s probably the droid. It can’t keep the shields up properly. That’s why it’s stuck buffering.”
“It isn’t buffering,” insisted PT.
“I used to have a refrigeration unit that did the same thing whenever I tried to reset the temperature,” said Ubik. “Identity crisis, very common in old machines. Get stuck in their ways.”
“It isn’t buffering, it’s stuck in a gravity fork. It’s caught between two different gravity planes. I think it’s trying to stop these shields from collapsing and it’s taking everything its got to do it.”
“It’s trying to keep us alive?” said Ubik. It was certainly a possibility, but not a very likely one. “Why not just focus on saving Fig and let us die? Conserve a bit of energy.”
“Say it a little louder, why don’t you?” said PT. “Might not be able to hear you through the red shield keeping us alive.”
“Yeah, sure,” said Ubik. “Because it won’t have thought of that already. It obviously can’t control the gravity field itself, it can barely keep these shields up. Look how they’re flickering. Integrity is rubbish. All we need to do is… Hey, I’ve just had a great idea.”
“Can you wait until I find something to hide behind?” said PT.
“No,” said Ubik. He changed the filter on his helmet. Instead of cancelling out the shield around them, he matched it. Then he touched the helmet to the shield and held it there despite the resistance pushing him back.
The droid was connected to the shield. There was no way to directly affect its connection but it could see him. It could see his effect on the shield.
Ubik cleared his mind and focused. The symbols he’d seen, the patterns and sequences, they appeared in the darkness. He moved the helmet across the shield to form the symbols he felt said what he wanted to convey. It wasn’t the most eloquent conversation but it would have to do.
The droid was stuck trying to keep control over a system it was in the process of being rejected from. Ubik had seen this sort of thing before. The droid was trying to maintain connection, keep the integrity of the shielding and stop itself from shorting out. It was too much. The obvious place to cut your losses was the droid itself.
Silver lines shot out from the droids tendrils and into the wall. The grooves filled up far faster than when the Head had tried to do the same. Silver liquid came from below like it was being siphoned up, going through the droid’s limbs and into the wall.
The wall on the opposite side of the shaft mirrored the effect, the entire surface turning silver in an instant. There had to be a huge source of the liquid below.
A rumble sounded from above them. The walls either side of the silver one started to also turn silver.
Ubik wasn’t sure what was going on, but he felt an immense amount of energy around him. It was like the air was dripping with it. Perhaps a little slower would be better. He closed his eyes again and concentrated as he moved the helmet across the surface of the shield.
The silver spread even faster, every wall, up and down. The shaft became much brighter. The rumble got louder.
“I think you should stop,” said PT.
“Just a minute, wanna try something.” Ubik focused harder, sent more symbols.
“Um, don’t turn the engine on, will you?” said Fig.
“Not planning to,” said Ubik. He tried his hardest to send a cease and desist. The entire shaft lit up. The walls shook. The platform he was standing on felt like it was going to fall apart. He sent more symbols. Some he made up himself.
A silver platform descended from above, levitating on air. It made an awful racket and came to stop level with the platform. The shaking stopped. The red shields disappeared. The droid shattered.
Ubik winced as he fell to the floor, but nothing else happened. The gravity was back to normal.
“You called the elevator?” said PT.
“Ah, that’s right,” said Ubik, getting up. “Thought it would be quicker than walking.”
“Did you call it on purpose?” asked Fig, no longer separated from them.
“Of course. What else do you think I was doing?”
“I only caught some of it,” said Fig, “but it looked like you were begging it to stop.”
“What? No, you clearly need to brush up on your ancient alien languages. Lucky for you, I give lessons. Charge by the hour. Come on, let’s go.”
Ubik stepped onto the silver platform and fell straight through it.
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